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Jerry Pournelle

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

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A report on Taiwan

A Foreign Policy Research Institute Special Report on Taiwan, together with the Full and Complete Text of my original Intellectual Capital Article.

My July 10 article was edited severely to fit the Intellectual Capital format. Arguably it was improved: probably more people read it than would have read the entire original. However I made some points there that are better not lost. Herewith my report, followed by a definitive report from the Foreign Policy Research Institute.





Jerry Pournelle

(This article originally appeared in Intellectual Capital, an on-line magazine, July 10, 1999. This is the original and unedited version.)


Samuel Johnson remarked that people seldom need educating, but they often need reminding. Recent articles on Taiwan new policy of “Two Nations” rather than “One China” demonstrate that. The origins of this new threat to world peace – and alas, it is that – are lost in what is history to most Americans, and even those of us who lived through it have forgotten much.

On the surface it should be obvious that Taiwan and Red China are different countries. Taiwan is an industrialized island democracy with a fast growing economy, one of the Asian Tigers helping to fuel the world economic boom. The People’s Republic of China is a gerontocratic tyranny whose vast economic potential is saddled with a command economy, an Army that owns many industrial and agricultural enterprises, and a huge bureaucracy. The astonishing fact isn’t that Taiwan President Lee Teng-hiu has finally said that Taiwan is a separate and sovereign nation, but that it took so long for him to do it.

Red China has the same reasons for claiming Taiwan is part of China as Milosovec has for claiming Kossovo is part of his Serbian Yugoslavia; but why would Taiwan go along with the fiction that Taiwan neither is nor should be a country separate from Mainland China?

It started in 1911 when Dr. Sun Yat-Sen overthrew the Empire and proclaimed the Republic of China. The result was what usually happens in China when Peking loses the Mandate of Heaven and there is a new dynasty: many of the provinces, often aided by foreign powers, go their own way and become the personal fiefdoms of local warlords. It was no different after 1911, and the first major task of the new Republic was to get control of the country and prevent it from breaking apart. This wasn’t easy. Corruption was widespread both in Peking and the provinces. Some of the warlords gave better and more honest government than the Republic’s bureaucracy. Japan already occupied Taiwan (as Formosa) and had for a long time. The Japanese Empire set up the puppet state of Manchukuo in Manchuria to carve away more of China. Russia sponsored the Chinese Communists who waged war against the central government even as Imperial Japan invaded the country with a view to dismembering it.

When World War II broke out, the United States, traditionally the foreign power with the best relations with China – we had always demanded an “Open Door” trade policy as opposed to concession territories and colonies – recognized the strong man Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, leader of the Kuomintang (KMT, Union of all peoples or Nationalist) Party, as the only legitimate government of China. All of China, including breakaway provinces, some long occupied by other powers. This was in part due to the enormous popularity in the United States of Madame Chiang, a Catholic member of the Soong banking family, who spoke perfect English and toured the US charming nearly everyone she met, and in part due to anti-Japanese sentiments in early 20th Century America. As a result, when the war ended and the United Nations was formed, China was given one of the five permanent seats on the Security Council (along with the US, Britain, France, and the USSR); thus Chiang’s Nationalist China was recognized as a Great Power and treated as such, entitled to recover all territories lost to Japan, and possibly other territories as well.

Stalin agreed to all this, but his support was for the Chinese Communist insurrection under Mao Tse Dung. Note that all parties, were agreed at this point: there was only one China, and the Nationalist government was the recognized government of it.

Things stood this way until the Chinese Communists won control of the mainland. Chiang Kai-Shek took his Nationalist Party Army and most of his government to the island province of Formosa (now known as Taiwan), where he formed a government, not of Taiwan, but of China itself, retaining the name Republic of China. It was a dictatorship. A majority of seats in the parliament were reserved for mainland provinces, which meant they were held in perpetuity by Chiang’s old friends (and their designees after they began to die off). The local Taiwanese were represented only as a province (there was a provincial government, but it had little power). Like Spain under Franco, the Nationalist government of Taiwan (code named here CHINATS) gave reasonably efficient government, and plenty of economic liberty including property rights and economic rule of law, but permitted no political activity beyond boosterism. Dissent was suppressed, not as brutally as on the mainland, but quite thoroughly.

It was known as the Republic of China or ROC, as opposed to the People’s Republic of China or PRC (code named here CHICOMS). The Republic of China (CHINATS) retained the official embassies in all non-communist countries including the United States, and US officials attended the official Independence Day parties on October 10 celebrating the official proclamation of the Republic by Dr. Sun Yat-Sen. In nearly all countries outside the Communist bloc the ROC was recognized as the only government of all China, Taiwan and mainland alike. China was one country.

The People’s Republic had precisely the same view, except that they claimed their Communist Party, not the Nationalists on Taiwan, were the legitimate government. Since they were clearly the de facto government of most of China, this was a strong argument. Many thought the sensible thing to do would be to recognize the PRC as the de facto ruler of the mainland and the ROC as de facto rule of the Taiwan, and leave the question of de jure recognition out of the picture.

This was impossible for two reasons. First, neither ROC nor PRC would permit it: recognize one and the other would break off relations. Since the Nationalist ROC despite its smaller size was vastly more important as a trading partner, this presented a real dilemma to many mercantile nations. In those days mainland China was a vast sea of poverty made worse from time to time by imbecile policies like the Great Leap Forward, drives against Foreign Devils, and a campaign to kill every sparrow in China since they ate grain (as well as insects, which flourished after the birds were killed). It was pointless to trade with mainland China. They had little to trade, and what they had was generally made by slave labor.

Secondly, there was a strong moral component to not recognizing the PRC. Senator Thomas Dodd (father of Senator Chris Dodd who shares few of his late father’s views) was Chairman of the Committee of One Million against the Recognition of Red China, and there was a very active movement to punish any US official who advocated recognizing the PRC. This movement was strongly supported by the Republic of China, which still insisted there was only one China, and that they would one day take their rightful place in Peking as its government.

In those times Red China would sometimes mobilize in an attempt to retake Formosa by storm. Sometimes they bombarded offshore islands held by the Nationalists. Whenever they did, the US would send a fleet and threaten war. After the Korean War, in which Red China intervened through the cover story of “volunteers”, it was a truism that the US should never again become involved in “a land war in Asia”, but our Fleet was invincible in the area, and both Navy and Air Force planes flew over China pretty much at will.

There were also some signs that the Nationalist wishes weren’t entirely based on air. There was the “Walking Rice” program. Unarmed Taiwanese officer cadets would be dropped onto the mainland and walk to the sea. They carried radios and called in air drops of rice to each village through which they passed. Chiang claimed this showed that his officers had some jurisdiction in China. It certainly showed that a lot of the mainland people were hungry enough not to kill Santa Claus. Meanwhile there was widespread poverty and actual famine on the mainland, while Taiwan grew more wealthy.


Then came the break between PRC and USSR. China had conceded a great deal of territory to Imperial Russia. This was not important so long as both nations were communist, but it became so when their affair was broken off. Red China stumbled toward industrialization, and the development of nuclear weapons. Some saw this as a major new threat to the West. There was even a movement to work with the USSR to “enucleate” China: that is, a joint US and USSR air strike on the PRC uranium separator plants. This was seriously considered at one time in the Johnson Administration.

Most importantly, Red China was part of the Communist “containment” area. The US Cold War strategy of containment, first publicly articulated by George Kennan but refined and developed by Stefan Possony of the Hoover Institute, said that communism couldn’t work without expansion: coop them up to stew in their own juice, and communist societies would come apart. It would work to bring down the USSR without war, and it would do the same for China; it took only time and courage. Both Korea and Viet Nam were fought as part of containment. Containment would bring down both USSR and Communist China if given a chance.

Nixon and Kissinger saw things differently: a working alliance with PRC would be a way to put great pressure on the USSR, which was seen as the only real threat to the US. Kissinger in particular thought the Cold War was unwinnable because the American people didn’t have the will and stamina for victory: better to negotiate a détente, cut the best deal we could and hope a victorious Communist Empire in Europe and Asia would let the US live, at least during our lifetimes. To that end Nixon went to China, and the long path toward recognition of the PRC as the real government of China began.

During all that time the old mainlanders who governed Taiwan insisted that there was only one China; better to allow the Communists to take over the perquisites of a united China than to admit there were two China’s. This suited the PRC fine, and since neither side was in favor of two China’s the US went along with the myth, and thus were lost several opportunities to extract Red China’s recognition of the de facto division into two Chinas as part of our deal in resuming trade relations with the mainland.


That’s the history. Today it’s different. The Soviet Union is no more. Mainland China is wealthy enough to offer some trade possibilities (although last time I looked Taiwan is a more important and valuable trading partner than the mainland), and contributes to US political campaigns. Most important, though, the former Republic of China, now better known as Taiwan, is governed by a president elected by the local population, and a legislature that no longer reserves most of its seats for old men in exile. There remains some veneration for elders on Taiwan, but nearly all of the influential Taiwanese were born there, and while some are descendents of mainlander exiles, most are Taiwanese by ancestry as well. Red China has a mighty army and is developing a navy; there’s little hope that Taiwan could ever invade the mainland, while military operations in the reverse direction become increasingly possible.

And finally, the US has used up much of its naval strength in the Balkans, where we have no interests, and have made no promises; so that we don’t have a lot left to defend Taiwan, which has at least as as much right to independence as Kosovo, and where we have strong commitments of national honor and many ties of promises made. Make no mistake: Red China has the same legitimate claim to Taiwan as Serbia does to Kosovo.


The current administration was undoubtedly surprised by President Lee’s recent shift to a “Two Nations” policy; but then the current administration has never paid much attention to Taiwan, which it regards as a Republican ally. It is now clear that we’re going to have to develop a new policy, fast, and do it while we try to restock our weapons used up to achieve our great victory in the Balkans.


Bismark once said that God looks after fools, drunks, and the United States of America. We can hope he was right, but perhaps it is time we gave the Almighty some assistance by looking out for our real interests instead of piddling away our strength in places where the outcome doesn’t matter. Taiwan and the Formosa Straits are an area of real interest.


We live in interesting times.


- 30 -

NOTE: Probably the greatest criticism I received for this article was the analogy between Taiwan and Kossovo. I do not withdraw that, but let me make it clear. Serbian claims to Kossovo are historical. The majority of the local population is culturally and politically quite different from Serbia, and doesn't want to be governed by Serbia; this without regard to whether the inhabitants of Kossovo would opt for independence or alignment with a Greater Albania. Serbia claims Kossovo purely because it was historically part of Serbia, and until rather recent times had a population largely of ethnic Serbs; many of the Albanians in Kossovo arrived as part of Mussolini's army of occupation (or are descendents).

The Taiwanese are ethnically similar to Chinese, but have a different dialect which was suppressed by the Chiang government, which imposed Mandarin as part of its pretense to be the government of all China. Taiwan also has a somewhat different culture from the mainland, some of which was derived from the long occupation by Japan.

The analogy isn't perfect; my point was mostly that the People's Republic of China has a legal claim not particularly weaker or stronger than Yugoslavia has to Kossovo.


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by  Jacques deLisle

 July 26, 1999

 Jacques  deLisle  is  Associate  Professor  of  Law  at  the University of Pennsylvania Law School and a member of FPRI’s Study Group  on U.S.-China  Relations.   This piece draws on his work  for the  Study Group  on the  international  legal status of  Taiwan, which  will be presented in expanded form in the Winter 2000 issue of Orbis, due out in December.


 by  Jacques deLisle

 When  Taiwanese   President  Lee   Teng-hui  told  a  German interviewer this  month that  relations between the Republic of China on Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China were a form of  state-to-state relations,  a  diplomatic  firestorm predictably erupted  over his  apparent embrace  of  a  “two China” or  a “one  China, one  Taiwan” policy.   Beijing let rain  the   colorful  denunciations  that  have  become  its trademark, branding  Lee a    sinner  condemned  by  history whose   criminal   acts would   stink  for a thousand years. Great powers  and small  states scrambled  to reaffirm their “one China”  policies.   Clinton telephoned  Jiang Zemin  to assure Beijing that the U.S. did not support any move by Lee to change  the status quo.  The world worried about a replay of the  military tensions in the Taiwan Strait that attended the PRC’s  reaction to  what it  saw as Lee’s head-of-state-like visit  to the  U.S. for  a Cornell  reunion in 1995 and Taiwanese voters’  possible  affinity  for  pro-independence platforms  in   the  then-upcoming  1996  elections.    Some observers warned  -- although not terribly plausibly—that Beijing  would  feel  compelled  to  attack  the    renegade province.  Taipei’s stock market dropped.

 The words  that precipitated  all of  this  were  less  than revolutionary.   To the  untutored  ear,  there  was  little difference between  the new  (and fairly opaque) terminology of a  special type  of state-to-state   relations  within  a Chinese  nation   and  the  former  (and  quite  convoluted) official formulation  of intra-Chinese relations between two equal political entities, each exercising sovereignty over a part of  China.   Lee’s  comments  and  subsequent  official statements  stressed   that  the   ROC  had   not  abandoned unification as an ultimate goal, albeit one to be achieved – as the 1991 National Unification Guidelines had made clear in  the very  long term  and after  the mainland achieved democracy.   Lee cast  his claim  that there was no need  to declare independence  not as  a formal  assertion of  a  new stance but,  rather, as an implication of the familiar claim that the  ROC has  been a  sovereign independent state since 1912.    The  controversial  state-to-state    language  was explained, plausibly  but somewhat disingenuously, as merely descriptive of  the state  of affairs  that had  existed  at least since  1991, when  the ROC government formally dropped its  claim   to  be  the  wielder  of  legitimate  sovereign authority over  all  of  China.

     True,  Taiwan’s  Mainland Affairs Council confirmed that the government was dropping a “one  China”   policy,  at   least  with   respect  to   the connotations  of   Taiwan-PRC  inequality  and  subordinate- superior relations that Beijing had managed to attach to the phrase.   The heavily  couched and  caveat-laden  statements from Lee  and his  minions represented  only one  step in  a decade-long march  away from  the logically  consistent  but politically bizarre  framework in which everyone agreed that there was  one China  with one  legitimate  government,  but disagreed about  whether that  government  was  the  one  in Beijing or  the  one,  temporarily,  in  Taipei.    For  any realistic observer,  of course,  Lee and other ROC officials uttered an  obvious, if  politically touchy,  truth: The PRC and Taiwan are, in practice, two separate countries.

 In cross-strait relations, of course, the absence of radical policy change  or the  congruence  between  description  and reality does not render new terms innocuous.  As Lee and his government knew,  subtle changes  of language  -- especially anything touching  Beijing’s hot-button issue of sovereignty are seen as communicative and provocative acts, likely to produce the  reaction that  occurred.  Why, then, did Lee do it?   Speculation has ranged from the banal (an uncalculated utterance by  an incautious  president with pro-independence sentiments)  to   the  conspiratorial  (a  plot  to  trigger confrontation  with   the  PRC   that  would  justify  Lee’s remaining in  power beyond  his term).  While we do not know what the  actual motives  were, the plausible candidates are aspects of  the same broader explanation: The ROC government has been caught in a tightening political vise abroad and at home, and had a likely-fleeting chance to push back.

 Externally, the  PRC has increased the pressure on Taiwan to move toward  reintegration under  some version  of its  “one country, two systems” formula.  Able to point to Hong Kong’s relatively untraumatic  reversion, offering  to  let  Taiwan keep  more   of  the   trappings  of  a  separate  political existence, and  voicing complaints  about the desultory pace and insubstantial  content of cross-strait negotiations, the PRC has  enjoyed growing success in portraying itself to the world as  a  reasonable  (and,  by  some  lights,  the  more reasonable) party.  The scheduled October visit to Taipei by the  mainland’s   chief  Taiwan   negotiator,  Wang  Daohan, promised an occasion to tighten the screws.

 Such  developments,   coupled  with   Beijing’s   relentless campaign to  deny  Taiwan  membership  in  intergovernmental organizations and  recognition from other states, threatened Taiwan’s tenuous  international status.   Especially ominous for Taipei  was  the  U.S.  shift  from  formal  agnosticism (acknowledgment   that Chinese  on both  sides of the strait believed that  there was  one China) to stated opposition to an independent  Taiwan (one  of the   “three  no’s”  Clinton articulated in 1998). The PRC’s steady rise as a great power and the  U.S. business  lobby’s pressure for good U.S.-China relations suggested  little hope  for reversing  the  trend.  Beijing’s  military   modernization  program,   along   with Taiwan’s uncertain  access  to  U.S.  protection,  arms  and weapons technology,  augured further shifts of the strategic balance against  Taiwan.  Taiwan’s burgeoning investment and trade relations  with the  mainland were  giving  Beijing  a promising economic  lever against  Taipei.   Within the PRC, the decay  of communist  ideology, the  prospect of bumps on the once-smooth  road of  rapid  economic  growth,  and  the persistence of  military and  conservative  elements among a generally pro-reform  leadership  have  produced  a  durable embrace of  nationalism --  an influence  that favors a hard line on  Taiwan issues, and one that spiked in the aftermath of the bombing of Beijing’s embassy in Yugoslavia.

 Also, the  ROC government  had largely  exhausted the  gains available under  the existing  rules of  the game.  Taipei’s dollar diplomacy  had won  most of  the recognitions that it could expect  to obtain  from small and financially strapped countries.     The  aggressive   pursuit  of  membership  in international organizations and international agreements had mostly played out.  Of the two big prizes, WTO accession had become inextricably  bundled with  the  PRC’s  still-stalled entry, and  UN membership  was beyond reach, given Beijing’s intractable opposition  and another  of Washington’s  “three no’s”   (no support  for Taiwan’s  participation in  states-only  bodies).

 At home,  the vise  has been  tightening all  around.    The ruling  Kuomintang’s  Taiwanization  (exemplified  by  Lee’s status as  the ROC’s  first non-mainlander  president),  the popular   appeal   of   principles   of   democratic   self-determination, and  the popular  distaste for  mainland life that many  Taiwanese have now seen first-hand have generated growing demands for stronger assertions of Taiwan’s separate status. Possible limits to hypocrisy, even in politics, have made the old “one China”  formulation increasingly untenable in light  of Taiwan’s  political life as an entity obviously distinct  and   profoundly  different   from  the  mainland.  Taiwan’s democratization  has subjected the KMT to electoral pressures --  from the  Democratic Progressive  Party, whose electoral success  has driven  the KMT  to try  to coopt the DPP’s relatively  pro-independence agenda,  and from the New Party,    whose     small    constituency    of    old-style reunificationists sometimes  has threatened  KMT candidates’ electoral base.   Taiwanese  business interests’ huge stakes in the  PRC have  made them  a potent force against policies that could anger Beijing.

 The approach of the 2000 presidential election has increased the pressure  on Lee  and his  KMT government.   The party’s candidate and  Lee’s chosen  successor, vice  president  and former premier  Lien Chan,  has lagged in a race with rivals who stood to either side of the government’s former position on cross-strait  issues --  DPP standard-bearer  and  former Taipei mayor  Chen Shui-bian,  and  then-expected  and  now-declared independent candidate James Soong, a mainlander and former provincial  governor who  had been  part of  the  KMT leadership.    In  this  troubling  setting,  President  Lee approached his  final chance  to define  his legacy  in  the crucial area of Taiwan’s status.

 In giving  Lee reasons  to act  now, these threats coincided with a  moment of  opportunity.   The likelihood  of serious retaliation from  the PRC  was relatively  low.  Beijing has been reminded  of its  military  weaknesses  by  the  latest display of  U.S. weaponry in Yugoslavia.  It has been on the defensive diplomatically  after overplaying  its hand in the Balkan crisis  and the  last  Taiwan  crisis.  It  has  been seeking a  favorable foreign  relations environment  for its WTO bid,  and has  been preoccupied  with difficult domestic issues.   U.S.-PRC relations  have been  in such a bad state that Washington  likely would  feel disinclined or unable to side with  Beijing.  Amid the controversies over the embassy bombing, the  failed WTO  deal, the Cox Report’s allegations of Chinese  nuclear espionage,  and Chinese-sourced campaign contributions, Taipei at least could count on its friends in Congress to make it difficult for the administration to lean heavily on  the ROC  government, especially  if Beijing made the expected  threats to  use  force.    Taiwan  might  even improve its  chances of  getting the coveted Theater Missile Defense.

 Lee took  advantage of  a chance  to seize the initiative in defining preconditions of equality for the scheduled October cross-strait talks.   At  home, announcing  the new position also might  influence Taiwan’s  presidential  contest,  most obviously by  partly capturing  a key  DPP  issue.    A  PRC response that  triggered anger  and fear toward the mainland could be  expected to  drive voters  away  from  Soong,  the candidate  most   acceptable  to  Beijing,  from  Chen,  the candidate most  likely to  provoke Beijing, and toward Lien, the candidate  of continuity  and stability.  Even if unable to affect the election’s outcome, Lee’s declarations—made with his unique authority as the ROC s soon-to-retire, first democratically elected  and  first  Taiwanese  president  -- might constrain  a not-wholly-sympathetic  next president or give cover to a more like-minded successor.

 For the  U.S., there  is much  irony in  all this.   Lee has created vexing  diplomatic problems  for  Washington.    His pronouncement, along  with the  reactions to  it, have added new stresses  to a  troubled U.S.-PRC  relationship.  It may force new  and difficult  choices about where and under what conditions the U.S. will use military force in East Asia. It has put  the Clinton  administration in the awkward position of scolding  the leader of a thriving market-democracy, with inevitable overtones of kowtowing to an authoritarian regime with a  poor human rights record and a badly battered public image.   Yet, most  of the factors that likely produced this mess reflect  developments that  the  U.S.  has  championed: democratization and  political freedom  on  Taiwan,  greater engagement in  the  international  order,  greater  economic openness and  economic reform  and development,  and a  more pluralistic policy  process in  the PRC.  The task ahead for political leaders  in Washington,  Beijing and  Taipei is to manage the  vices that the tightening vise has produced.  To do that,  they will  need to  see the  virtues of  , in particular  looking  to  long-term  national  interests  and resisting the temptation—much in evidence on all sides in the  current   troubles  -  to  pursue  short-term  domestic political gains  when handling  what surely  will be  an on-going series of crises over Taiwan.

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 A Linguistic  Disturbance: The End of the One-China Policy?, by Harvey Sicherman, 7/99

 China and the History of Sea Power in the Pacific, by Walter McDougall 7/99

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 Religious Revivals  in Communist  China, by  Arthur Waldron, 2/99


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